Sunday, May 26, 2013

Does not wisdom call?

Proverbs 8: 22-36, OT page 591 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. And now, my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death. Sermon The second and first scripture lessons for today are just two parts of the same chapter – chapter 8 of Proverbs – on this Trinity Sunday. And this chapter of Proverbs is appropriate for Trinity Sunday. This “wisdom” who “raises her voice” has been assumed by Christian theologians to be the third person of the Trinity or God the Holy Spirit, accompanying the first person of the Trinity, God the Creator through the great acts of creating the world and human kind that are described here in chapter 8. Today on Trinity Sunday we deliberately remember that when we refer to God we refer to three: God the Father, or Creator, God the Holy Spirit, or Wisdom, and God the Son, or Christ our Savior. But of course, the Trinity is still hard to understand – so today we look for wisdom to wrap our heads around a difficult concept, and thinking of the first line of our first scripture lesson and the title of this sermon, “Does not wisdom call?” Wisdom does call, but so does confusion and I often find myself confused by the Trinity. That’s not the only thing that I’m confused by however. I’m also confused by algebra. I remember too well the feeling of sitting in 9th grade algebra, thinking about how I was just fine with numbers until they got mixed together with the alphabet. 2 times B equals 72. I was excited when confronted by this problem at first because when I saw 72 I thought my teacher had already provided me the answer, but then I realized it was up to me to define B. I didn’t know how to do it – I started getting frustrated, then worried, and next thing I knew my teacher was done explaining but I was so confused and I had given in to my confusion so I didn’t raise my hand or even ask the person sitting next to me for help – I just sat there. That is a dangerous place. The teenager who doesn’t ask questions for fear that he won’t understand is not any different from the adult who fears he won’t understand the Trinity and so just gives up. Or the adult who is too intimidated to learn something new like painting or exercising at the YMCA – confusion only holds power over those who can’t see a way out of it but wisdom says that there is always a way out. Does not wisdom call? Of course it does, and wisdom was there telling me to get some help but confusion was calling just as loud telling me that I’d never be able to understand even if I had some help. Guidance is there for times such as this in verse 4 - “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it.” Certainly I lacked it, but I could have acquired it if only I listened to wisdom rather than confusion. Does not wisdom call? It does, but in addition to confusion, ignorance also calls – and some are willing to sit in ignorance, angry at what they don’t understand and constantly trying to make what is complicated simple. You know these people. They stand around providing advice but are rarely seen doing any work. There is a terrific forum for many of them in our local newspaper. There in “Sound Off”, this column where anyone who would like to call in to the paper and voice their opinion can see their thoughts in print regardless of the merits of their thoughts, you can find all kinds of opinions. But just last Sunday I read a really good one, “I would just say to Mr. Ron Hart and all the rest of the people that have the answers to all the problems in this country, why are you sitting at home being a Monday morning quarterback when you could be in Washington solving all our problems?” I don’t know who called in to make this comment, but I think there is wisdom in this caller’s suspicion. We all watch the news, and while you and I know that everything on TV or in the newspaper isn’t the truth, sooner or later things start to sink in, and the opinions of talking heads who make their money by the 24 hour news cycle working to raise your suspicion while demonizing their political opponents can start to take hold. And that’s a problem because while Ron Hart, Bill O’Riley, or Jon Stewart sound very confident and self-assured pointing fingers and claiming to have so many of the answers, they aren’t in Washington, nor are they making steps to implement any sort of plan of their own. Does not wisdom call? Of course it does – but so does ignorance and ignorance will fill you up with something that feels like confidence, will send you out into the world with something that seems like purpose and the desire for change, but despite all the talk that we fall victim to on the 24 hour news cycles I don’t see much improving because of the talking heads besides television ratings because ignorance has a voice and it makes a lot of noise but it doesn’t have any substance. There in verse 13 we find: “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. I have good advice and sound wisdom; I have right insight, I have strength. By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me rulers rule, and nobles, all who govern rightly.” Does not wisdom call – of course it does – but I wish more people would listen, and I know it’s hard to listen, because in addition to confusion and ignorance, fear has also been let loose on the world and fear is a powerful force. Fear is good at making rational, upright people do wrong, for fear drives us to think that there is a difference between doing what is right and keeping our families safe; that sometimes it is better, not to wait for the just solution but to just do something. While there are many to be afraid of in this world, should fear become our guide and should the wisdom of our minds take a back seat to the terror of our hearts than there is no enemy so fearsome as ourselves. Wisdom desires safety, but a gun in the hands of a wise man and a gun in the hands of a man who is afraid are two very different things. Wisdom desires justice, but fear will try to hurry justice along desiring action. And wisdom is thoughtful while fear is shortsighted, for people who are afraid will give away anything to survive. Out of the fear of losing their job they’ll accept an unjust wage, out of the fear of losing a boyfriend or a girlfriend they’ll give themselves away, and out of the fear of being a disappointment they will disappoint themselves for not having the courage to be true. Does not wisdom cry out? I should say that she does, and she cries out saying, “For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.” Now confusion is an option, but when I gave into confusion, settled in to it, my grade suffered and I only made it out of Algebra because my Dad sat down with me and pulled me out of it. Many choose ignorance over wisdom as well, but ignorance gives birth to partisan politics and senseless arguments while solutions remain out of reach. And fear continues to control the hearts of many, but fear leads to death and only those who find wisdom find life and favor from the Lord. From the beginning of time wisdom has been calling out - when there were no depths she was brought forth. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, like a master worker wisdom was there rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race. But while wisdom calls out to you, will you listen? Will you seek clarity rather than grow used to confusion? Will you accept complexity, search out real solutions, or grow complacent in simplicity and ignorance? And when there is fear, will you give in to it or will you remain faithful, trusting that by wisdom you will prevail? Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect wisdom. Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Wind and Fire

Acts 2: 1-21, NT page 119 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly, from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed these are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Sermon “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place,” is how our second scripture lesson begins, and it’s worth considering for a moment just how miraculous that was. Surely there was work that could have been done that morning, but they gathered there anyway. The school calendar must have cooperated in order for all of them to be there – no one was away on vacation. By some miracle there were no soccer games, and, thanks be to God, all the kids cooperated in putting on their Sunday clothes so families could get out of the house on time. They were all together in that one place, and it’s important to stop and reflect just right there to consider what would have to happen for all the members of First Presbyterian Church to be gathered here in one place on a Sunday morning. But there you have it – it happened – they were all gathered together, and for a preacher like me it can be easy to get caught up in the magnitude of one Sunday of perfect attendance. There is much that could keep you away, and that you are here reflects a spiritual discipline to be admired. Surely there is a list of things you could be doing rather than sitting in your pew or listening in on the radio – you could be out cutting the grass, planting tomatoes, taking a nap, or watching TV. Instead you are here, and I am thankful that you are because in our world something as important as attending church is becoming harder and harder, or at least less and less likely to happen. There’s a miracle then in just that first line of our scripture lesson – and it’s a miracle that means for me a certain degree of job security, but the moral of our lesson is not that church members should make a greater effort to attend church every Sunday. In fact, it certainly should be said that if the church is simply a place where people show up on Sunday morning, if the great sign of faithfulness is whether or not you worship each week, if this hour right now is the culmination of your religious practice, than you only know the tip of the iceberg of what it means to be a Christian. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly, from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Then they spoke to the city of Jerusalem where Jews of every nation had assembled for a festival, and they declared God’s great deeds of power. They assembled – yes, all in one place – but then the Holy Spirit fell upon them, the curse of the Tower of Babel was reversed, and they were able to take a message out into the world. To take the message out into the world – now that is what we celebrate today on Pentecost Sunday – the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and the Church was born. But so easily the Church goes back to that room that the disciples started in, assembled there all in one place, for we forget that we were created not just to assemble. The new Pope wrote to his home church in Argentina last month saying that, “A Church that does not go out of itself sickens from the stale air of closed rooms.” He told celibate Bishops and Priests that their vows of celibacy should enable them to become fathers to the churches that they serve, nuns that they should be like mothers, and that celibacy should be an excuse for neither to become hermits and spinsters. Instead they should go out – take risks, as this pope would prefer a church who makes mistakes a million times over a sick church. But the Church, in many ways is used to keeping to itself – and most everyone else is used to the Church keeping to itself as well. So the people of Jerusalem were shocked when those disciples looked out from the stale air of their closed room and did something, as people are often shocked to see religious people do something besides sit quietly in church pews. Some thought they were drunk – after all it’s a strange thing to go out into the world proclaiming a message – but Peter explains, and he becomes the first but certainly not the last to begin his sermon with a joke: “They’re not drunk, it’s only nine in the morning.” Then he continues with his explanation firmly rooted in Scripture saying this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Sons and daughters, not just talking, but prophesying with words of meaning and truth and God’s will at work in the world. Young men without much to live for and not much idea of what they should do, all at once full of purpose, seeing visions of a bright future for themselves, a reason to live, a reason to get up out of bed. There are High School Seniors here who will be honored later in this service – and what all of them need to know is that the courage to pursue a vision is what this world needs far more than a perfect grade point average, a life free of mistakes, and the need to never apologize. The Holy Spirit will provide the vision, but you must take a step out from the stale air of that closed room and into the world. And old men – they shall dream dreams. Not nightmares or fears, not the memories of a better time, not a well-worn road of wish-I-hads and regrets, but dreams. I think too often about the County Commission Room here on the Square. A mural of buildings that once were but are no more decorate one wall, and I’m thankful that they’ll be remembered, but it’s one thing to remember the past and it’s another thing to have a dream for the future – and I tell you an old man with a dream for the future is a powerful force. I knew a man like that. His name was Jim, and when he was diagnosed with lung cancer he knew he wouldn’t have much time, the cancer had already moved too fast. When I visited him in the hospital his wife left the room so we could talk. I don’t know what I wanted to know – and I didn’t know what I was supposed to say, but eventually I asked him if he was worried about anything. He told me that he had done his best to describe to his wife Carol the maintenance schedule for the Heating and Air system at the house, but he wasn’t sure if she had really wrapped her head around it yet. Then he said, “Joe, I don’t know what I’m going to do when I see him.” “See who Jim.” “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I see him. Will I dance, will I cry. When I see Jesus I’m not sure what I’m going to do.” He was old enough, but not so old that his death should not have made him angry or afraid. What makes me sure that the Holy Spirit was in him was that he was not laying on his bed with regrets or injustices on his mind. He was there dreaming of what he would do when he met Jesus. The time will come, for you and for me, when, in the words of a character in a great Wendell Barry novel, “we’ll have an appointment, not with the beautician but the mortician.” I don’t have to tell you how great a thing it is to not just show up here on Sunday, but to take the faith that this place can give you out into the world – to take hope out into a world of hopelessness, to take purpose and direction out to a generation without it, to take faith with you into the hospital room when death is knocking at the door - this is the difference between believing that the words of Scripture are nice to hear and believing that the words of Scripture really mean something. But that was Peter’s sermon – he preached about the day when the words of scripture would come alive and was bold to say that such a day was today. Do not be afraid – for the Holy Spirit has come, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Amen.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

And she prevailed upon us

Acts 16: 9-15, NT page 136 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. Sermon There’s a story about my grandmother as a young girl that I’m sure is true. She would ride home on the school bus with all her friends, but, rather than get off the bus in front of her neighborhood, she would get off the bus two stops early, not wanting her school friends to know the kind of neighborhood she really lived in. She’d walk the difference, sacrificing convenience for the sake of her image, sacrificing the state of her feet for the state of her pride, but I don’t know who she thought she was fooling, because her brother didn’t get off with her but stayed on the bus until it let him out right in front of their house. I say that I’m sure this story is true, because even though I have no official record of her walking from the neighborhood she wanted people to think she lived in to the neighborhood she actually lived in, she spent the rest of her life just as concerned with appearances as she was then. She always dressed in stylish outfits, even just to go to the grocery store. She always wore heels, even to the beach, and her house was always meticulously clean. I stayed with my grandfather in that house while she lay in the hospital bed. Though we didn’t know it then, or though we knew it but weren’t saying it then, my grandmother was dying, and my grandfather was wrapping his head around the idea of moving out of their home and into some sort of assisted living community. He could not stand the thought of moving. Even though he knew that if she did get out of the hospital she would need a lot of medical help, he still wanted her to be able to come home from the hospital to her own house. He wanted her to be able to come home to the house they had built together, the house that she had spent who knows how much money and who knows how many hours decorating over the years. But more than anything else, considering her childhood school bus ride shortened for the sake of pride, I know now that he wanted her to come home to a house that she was proud to live in. Sure there is more to life than a house, but a house is special. A house means something, and to invite someone into your house means something. This new convert to Christianity, Lydia, says to Paul and his companions: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” It’s an invitation and it’s a big invitation. She doesn’t say how long they should stay, and this invitation means, not just staying the night, but come and stay at my home: let me feed you, let me wash your clothes for I know you’ve been traveling and who knows how long it’s been since you laid down your head to rest in a real bed? But this invitation is also more than an invitation to her home, for accepting this invitation has consequences. To go into a home at the invitation of a woman in the ancient world, one would wonder what her husband would say. A woman didn’t often go speaking for her husband in the ancient world, and a woman who did was shocking enough, but what’s more is that there is no mention of any husband. In fact our scripture lesson refers to the baptism of Lydia and her household as though she stood at the head. And quite a household it was we can be sure. Our scripture lesson tells us that she was a dealer in purple cloth, purple being the color of royalty for the purple dye was so expensive, extracted from the remains of a small sea creature, that only the wealthiest could afford to buy it. Now the Gospel originated with some fishermen and a carpenter – could it just go and find a home with a woman who rubbed elbows with emperors? Besides that, what would people say? Paul is always image conscious. He had an idea, not just of his own comfort level, but how his message would be perceived should word get out that he and his fellow travelers stayed the night at an unwed woman’s home. But should he refuse the invitation – there are consequences then as well. This is a big invitation, a personal invitation. Just as she received the Gospel that Paul brought to her, out of gratitude perhaps, she wants Paul to receive a gift of hospitality that she not be only a recipient but a contributor. You know that feeling – you receive a gift, maybe a casserole, maybe nothing more than a cup of coffee, and you are so filled with gratitude you want to offer a gift in return. I once gave Van Turner nothing more than a cup of coffee. By the time our meeting was over he wasn’t done with it so I told him to take the cup with him and I was happy to give it to him, but having a wife who says that a dish never be returned empty, Van returned the cup with a tray of cinnamon rolls on top of it. Lydia had received an incredible gift, so much more than a cup of coffee. Paul brought to her the Gospel as only he could preach it – this radical idea that because Christ is the one who saves us all, no one is better than another for we are all in need of the Grace that our Lord provides. Therefore, Paul said to the church in Galatia as read in our first scripture lesson and we may safely assume he said it to Lydia as well, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” Bold words those are, and for those who hunger to hear them they are the greatest of gifts. Lydia could not help but want to give Paul something in return for bringing those words to her, and if the words were true, why would he say no? If there is no difference culturally between Jews and Greeks, why would Paul shy away from staying in a Macedonian home? If there is no difference economically between slaves and free than why would he be embarrassed by her wealth? And if there is no gender barrier, no inequality of the sexes, than why would Paul, a man, worry about staying with Lydia, a woman, not less than but equal to? He resisted we know, because of this tremendous line at the end of our scripture lesson, “And she prevailed upon us.” That is one of my favorite phrases in Scripture, one because it says so much in those five words, but also because I know so clearly what it means. I would often arrive at my grandmother’s house after lunch, maybe 1:30 or so. I’d walk in the door, she’d give me a hug, and without exception she’d ask me if I was hungry. What is particular, maybe not just to my grandmother but grandmothers in general, is that my answer to the question didn’t matter. “Joseph, are you hungry?” “No mam, I just ate thirty minutes ago.” “Well surely you’re hungry, you’ve been driving all morning, let me just put out some crackers and dip, doesn’t that sound good?” And she prevailed upon me. She’d do the exact same thing to my sister. “Elizabeth, I went to Sam’s Club and got a big box of those poppy seed muffins that you like so much.” “Nanny,” (we called her Nanny), “I really appreciate you getting those muffins for me, but to be honest, I don’t really like them all that much.” My grandmother wouldn’t pause or apologize, she’d just say something like, “But I thought you loved those. Didn’t you love those? Well just try one. Let me just heat one up in the microwave and put a little butter on it. I am just so sure that you love those muffins.” And here’s the real testament to my grandmother’s power – my sister would start to wonder, “Do I like those? I was so sure that I didn’t, but maybe she’s right.” You see – she prevailed upon her. My mother inherited this trait, and often I wish that she hadn’t. I might trust myself more if she hadn’t, but when my grandmother first went into the hospital I wasn’t ready to fly over to Charleston to see her. Cecelia had just been born. I had work to do, plane tickets aren’t cheap, and no one knew for sure how sick she really was, but the more we talked the less these things mattered and it wasn’t too long before I was on a plane to Charleston because my mother prevailed upon me, and it is only because she prevailed upon me that I was there, just days before my grandmother died. Of course I loved my grandmother and she knew I loved her. Of course Paul meant what he preached to Lydia and she knew that he meant it. But sometimes something else is necessary too. In a sermon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that there are plenty of Christians in this world ready and willing to pay lip service to the Gospel, but it’s not lip service that the world needs – what the world needs are people like you who are ready to pay life-service. Doing so is not easy, and it is far simpler to preach about the walls that the Gospel tears down in our society than it is to actually tear those walls down. Paul preached his sermon a million times about the divisions in our society rendered nothing by the power of the Gospel – but it is one thing to preach that message and it is another thing for Paul to go live it out – to go and stay at Lydia’s house. So big a thing that he couldn’t do it on his own. He tried to get out of it – to politely decline. But thanks be to God, “she prevailed upon him,” and thanks be to God that the same sort of thing has happened to me. About three years ago I was sitting in my office at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church just outside Atlanta when my cell phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize but I picked it up anyway and said, “This is Joe Evans.” The man on the other end said, “This is James Fleming, and I want to talk to you about coming up to Columbia, Tennessee.” “I’m sorry Mr. Fleming, but I’ve been contacted by a church in Columbia, South Carolina, I’ve been interviewing with them for about 10 months, and I think there’s a good chance they’ll be calling me soon to offer me a position there and if they do I plan on saying yes. I’m honored by your call, but there just isn’t any time.” Then James said something I’m sure I’ll never forget, “Listen Joe, if you are who they say you are I’m willing to make this thing go as fast as it needs to go.” Never in my life did I imagine that this church could do in two weeks what that other church had done in 10 months, but James had my attention, he prevailed upon me, and every day I walk into this church I thank God that he did. Of course I should have been more open to God’s call. Of course I should not have been reluctant for I know that the Spirit moves in mysterious and often inconvenient ways, but sometimes to do what is right you need someone to push you – you need to be prevailed upon, and do not be surprised if God works though people who are pushier than you think they should be. But not only does God work through people who are more pushy than maybe you think they should be – God may well need you to be more pushy than you are. There’s a great joke: “What do you get when you cross a Mormon and a Presbyterian? Someone who knocks on your door but doesn’t know what to say.” How often do you whisper an invitation to church, and politely allow a refusal from someone you know needs to be here? How often do you begin to talk about your faith, but give up because you get self-conscious? How often do you feel the need to speak out in truth but you fear being labeled as pushy, obnoxious, or unwilling to take no for an answer? Remember than Lydia – for when she prevailed upon Paul her house became the first household in all of Europe to convert to Christianity. At the foundation of every Cathedral in Greece, every Pope in Rome, and every preacher who preaches in English stands this woman who was the very first European convert. She prevailed upon Paul and look what happened – now go, and for the sake of the Gospel, go and be as pushy as is required. Amen.